BUFFALO, N.Y. -- This game was supposed to be about the No. 2 goalie, and in some ways, it was.
Brent Johnson, making his first start after sitting out 17 games because of injury, might not have forced his way into the Vezina Trophy conversation, but he made enough saves in enough key situations Friday night to make the Penguins' 5-3 victory against the Buffalo Sabres at First Niagara Center possible.
But the outcome was shaped mostly by the No. 2 center in the Penguins' lineup. The one who showed yet again why he just might be the No. 1 player in the world.
Sidney Crosby scored the Penguins' second goal and set up three others to help pull them out of a two-game skid and tighten their grip on fourth place in the Eastern Conference.
"He's been making it look easy," Penguins center Jordan Staal said. "He did a great job [Friday night]."
In the process, Crosby hit the 600-point mark. And did it faster than all but six players in NHL history.
"You don't really think about [a milestone] until you're reminded that you're close to it," Crosby said. "It's nice to get it."
That clearly was how the Penguins felt about this victory, which raised their record to 48-24-6 and hoisted them four points ahead of fifth-place Philadelphia in the East. They will play the Flyers at 12:38 p.m. Sunday at Consol Energy Center.
Buffalo's playoff hopes, meanwhile, absorbed a major hit. Although the Sabres are tied with Washington for eighth place in the East, the Capitals have a decided edge in the first tiebreaker.
"You have to put [losses] behind you," Sabres coach Lindy Ruff said.
His team entered the game with a five-game winning streak and was on a 7-0-2 roll, and competed with the ferocity the Penguins had anticipated.
"We wanted to make sure we got back to our game," Crosby said. "We knew we were going to be challenged with this team."
While the Penguins hardly have home-ice advantage for their opening-round series, mostly likely against Philadelphia, their chances of doing it will rise significantly if they can consistently play the solid two-way game they produced against the Sabres.
They were coming off two sluggish, sloppy efforts against the New York Islanders, but put together 60 pretty sound minutes over all 200 feet of the playing surface.
"The forwards were skating well and being aware of the defensive side and giving our [defensemen] a chance to step up," Staal said. "There were a lot of good things we did to find a way to win."
That includes capitalizing on opportunities with the man-advantage. The power play, which had scored just once in 16 tries in the previous five games, converted on two of its three chances against the Sabres.
"We didn't get the job done penalty-killing, which hurt us," Ruff said.
Evgeni Malkin gave the Penguins a 1-0 lead on a power play at 3:50 of the opening period, when he threw his own rebound past Sabres goalie Ryan Miller for his 48th goal and 101st point of the season.
Former Penguins player Jordan Leopold tied the score at 6:35, when he rapped in a loose puck on a scramble in the goalmouth, but Crosby put the Penguins back on top at 12:58 by swiping in a loose puck from near the right post.
Assists went to Steve Sullivan and Pascal Dupuis, the latter of whom stretched his scoring streak to 13 games, longest in the NHL this season.
The Sabres pulled even again at 15:45, however, as Tyler Ennis put a shot off Johnson and into the net from the outer edge of the right circle.
James Neal put the Penguins in front to stay on a power play at 11:43 of the second. He took a feed from Crosby, who was near the top of the right circle, and beat Miller from the inner edge of the left circle for his 38th of the season.
"[Crosby] made a heck of a play," Ruff said. "His passing is just as good as anybody in this league."
Sullivan put the Penguins up by two at 15:06 by chipping a backhander past Miller from in front of the net for his 15th.
Buffalo countered with a lucky-bounce goal by Thomas Vanek at 16:59, but Johnson stopped everything else that came his way until Staal scored into an empty net with 5.2 seconds left.
"I'm dissatisfied with a couple of bonehead plays I made out there," Johnson said. "I tried to overplay the play, almost, a couple of times.
"But the end result is the key. And I'm very satisfied with the end result."
For more on the Penguins, read the Pens Plus blog with Dave Molinari and Shelly Anderson at www.post-gazette.com/plus . Dave Molinari: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @molinaripg. First Published March 31, 2012 4:00 AM